Modern languages and magic tricks

Children love magic. My six-year olds still aren’t quite sure how I’m able to make coins disappear from my hands and reappear from behind their ears 🙂 And of course doing magic tricks is also a great way of teaching modern foreign languages. A little more preparation is needed to impress a whole class of Year 2 pupils but some misdirection and the sneaky use of technology works wonders! Doing some magic was also a way of linking in with Year 2’s current topic of ‘Hocus Pocus’.

Hexenhut Wolfi Zauberstab Wolfi with his magic wand and wizard’s hat

We started by practicing greeting our carpet partners with Guten Tag! and Hallo! and then singing our Guten Tag song which has four different actions – waving to each other, patting knees, stamping feet and clapping hands (wir winken uns zu; wir patschen auf die Knie; wir stampfen mit dem Fuß; wir klatschen in die Hände).

I then put a picture of a witch (eine Hexe) and a wizard (ein Zauberer) on the whiteboard and we all tried saying the words in German. Ein Zauberer sounded particularly magical to us as it began with a ‘z’; and one child pointed out that eine Hexe sounded like the English word ‘hex’.

Zehn ZaubererThis was followed by suggestions for magic spells and we learnt a German one: Hokus Pokus Fidibus!

Wolfi waved his magic wand around (ein Zauberstab) whilst the children used their invisible ones and, as if by magic, a different picture of a wizard appeared on the screen alongside the number 1. Amazingly (for the children) this happened all the way to 10! [I had hidden a presentation pointer in my pocket and pressed the button to move to the next slide, whilst the children were distracted by wand waving and calling out ‘Hokus Pokus Fidibus!‘]

We practised saying the numbers in German from 1 to 10 by saying the words whilst writing the numbers in the air and then counting out the numbers on our fingers.

To finish off, we made a magic potion (ein Zaubertrank). I had labelled 5 bags with the numbers from 1 to 5. Inside each one were ingredients for the magic potion (eine Maus, zwei Frösche, drei Dinosaurier, vier Käfer, fünf Spinnen). Volunteer witches and wizards put on a witch’s/wizard’s hat and helped me discover what was in the bags. As a class we counted the ingredients into the pot.

Fuer den ZaubertrankIngredients for the magic potion

Perhaps next time I’ll teach the pupils to fly broomsticks around in the playground … There were certainly enough Harry Potter lookalikes at school on witches and wizards dress up day!


Let it go!

Friday 26th September was the European Day of Languages and it was a great opportunity to kickstart modern foreign language learning with Year 2 at a local infant school. We had delivered a couple of sessions with different Year 1 classes before the summer but we are now looking forward to a term of German followed by one of Spanish.

So on Friday afternoon, I took a special assembly for Year 2 where we talked about the number of different languages spoken by children at the school (around 25) and the number of different ones spoken around the world (over 6,500!) The children were very keen to tell me about the languages they spoke or knew of and we learnt to say hello in a few different ones (after they took a guess at what some of the more exotic scripts might be!)


The highlight for the children though was watching the version of ‘Let it go’ from the film ‘Frozen’ sung in 25 different languages and we finished by learning how to sing the first part of the chorus in German: Ich lass los! 


Summer brain boost!

I recently came across an article about teacher parents who plan to take their two daughters out of school for a year of learning on the road because they felt “…the girls weren’t flourishing in the same way at school as they were during the family time.” This struck a chord with me as over the summer holidays my six year old boys became much more open to sharing their knowledge and learning new things. In relation to languages, they asked me to read books to them in German (instead of their usual resistance to the idea), for the first time tried reading the occasional German or French word themselves and actually responded to me when I spoke them in our semi-adopted second tongue. Some people talk about the summer ‘brain drain’ where children’s learning regresses somewhat over the long holiday but for us it seemed that the opposite happened.

Home (or indeed on-the-road) schooling isn’t an option for us right now but we are working hard to maintain this enthusiasm for language learning at home and in our classes. We can launch right in with preparing activities to celebrate the European Day of Languages on 26th September – this is a celebration of all languages, not just those spoken in Europe and is a great way to get children excited about communicating in another tongue. I’ll be asking questions such as: What languages are spoken in your family? How do children around the world say hello? In chinese it is ni hao! (你好!) and in russian it is zdra-stvooy-tye! (Здравствуйте!) This would be a great opportunity to introduce children to different written scripts and the musical quality of other languages.

Latest research: Even more reasons to study a foreign language: Bilingual babies benefit from learning faster and learning a foreign language can increase the size of your brain.

News round up: Scottish independence is of course a hot topic but our friends north of the border are also leading the way with language learning in primary schools. The plan is to introduce the European Union 1+2 model where every child will learn two languages in addition to his or her mother tongue. Let’s hope they find the funds to actually make this happen! And of course formal language learning for Key Stage 2 pupils has now commenced – will this stop the decline in the numbers taking a language at A-Level?

Upcoming events: We have signed up for the Language Show Live in October. Looking forward to meeting other passionate linguists and language teachers!


Mini-beasts and modern languages

We have been running some German and Spanish sessions at a local infant school, introducing Year 1 pupils to modern foreign language learning. As well as hello abee3_mimooh_01.svg.hind goodbye songs we decided to link in with their current topic which is ‘mini-beasts’. The vocabulary for various creepy crawlies in German, French and Spanish can be found here.

Below are some of our ideas for using ‘mini-beasts’ to teach some German, Spanish and French:

Flashcards and sign language
Choose 6 mini-beasts and create picture flashcards (we used fun cartoon versions, but more realistic images would also be good). Introduce the vocabulary for each of the pictures whilst signing the word. Encourage the children to copy your signs or to make up their own movements, as using gestures helps children remember vocabulary. If you are stuck for inspiration, you could use the signs for the language you are teaching. Signs in many different languages (including British English, German, French and Spanish) are available here.

(I know most classrooms have interactive whiteboards these days, but during one session, the technology failed on us, so I have stuck with low-tech flashcards for these examples :-))

Flashcards and literacy
When introducing the vocabulary for the mini-beasts, hold up a card with the target language vocabulary for each creature, so that the children can see how these new words are spelt. (The Year 1 teachers were keen on introducing elements of literacy as well as oracy into the language sessions). Interesting features can also be pointed out, for example accents, or how to say ‘die’ in German (as opposed to how it is pronounced in English).

Being a bit literal
Cartoon Grasshopper.svg.hi One way of learning vocabulary is to point out some of the literal meanings of words. For example, slug in German is die Nacktschnecke, which literally translates as ‘naked snail’. In French, a grasshopper is une sauterelle and the verb sauter means ‘to jump’; and similiarly in Spanish it is called un saltamontes, where the verb saltar means ‘to jump’.

Flashcards and movement
Make enough flashcards for the whole class, as well as yourself, (multiple copies of the 6 mini-beasts) and distribute at random amongst the children. Hold up a flashcard and then ask those children also holding that card to stand up/wave/wriggle about like the mini-beast. Second time round, just say the word (no flashcard), using sign language to prompt the children if necessary.

This activity could also be used reinforce the vocabulary for ‘stand up’ and ‘sit down’ (getting the children used to responding to those commands).

Alternatively, if the children have been making mini-beast masks in class, these could be used instead of flashcards. The children could also wear them and practice greeting each other in the target language. (Printable mini-beast masks can also be found easily on the web.)

How many legs?
Introduce numbers and counting by looking at pictures of the following mini-beasts and seeing how many legs they have: snail, ant, spider, woodlouse, caterpillar, centipede, millipede!

Incy Wincy Spider
Year 1 pupils still enjoy doing finger rhymes, so here are links to different versions of Incy Wincy Spider:cartoon-spider-hi
In German: Imse bimse Spinne
In Spanish: Araña arañita
In French: L’araignée Gypsy

Sections of The Very Hungry Caterpillar can be read out in the target language. This is a useful activity in and of itself, so that the children can listen to long passages read in the second language and enjoy the rhythm and intonation. It is a familiar book with great illustrations so the children can infer meaning from context.

An alternative activity is to ask pupils to listen out for certain words (e.g. die Raupe/la chenille/la oruga) and put up a hand when they hear it. This book is of course also useful for teaching numbers, food and days of the week.

Here is a video of the author, Eric Carle, reading this book in German, his mother-tongue. In French, this story is called ‘La chenille que fait des trous’ and in Spanish ‘La oruga muy hambrienta’.


I hope you find these suggestions useful and let me know if you have any comments!